True Stories

True Stories

Spring 2015

You won’t believe what happened to me…. 

Dena Wortzel admits to relishing the headlines of tabloid magazines, suggesting that the writers understand “the special attraction of anything claiming to be a true story.”

This issue of On explores our fascination with, and the power of, True Stories.  In the opening essay, Dena writes “individuals’ life stories can help us to see historical and cultural patterns, and can reveal unexpected meaning in the rich variety of human experience.  If, in the broadest sense, the humanities ask what it means to be human, then personal stories can be seen as offering a trove of individual answers that can change how we think and feel about other human beings.”

We invite you to read On.

In this issue of On:


From the Director’s Desk: True Stories

Before they went the way of so much print media, a flip through the tabloids in the supermarket checkout lane was part of my weekly shopping ritual.  Weekly World News with its “nothing but the truth” stories of alien abductions was my favorite.   And where else could you learn that “Strange Children Cry Rocks”?  Whoever came up with their “news” had more than a sense of the absurd.  They understood the special attraction of anything claiming to be a true story. 

Weekly World News is gone from the checkout lane, but canny entertainers continue to tempt us with true stories.  Thousands of radio and podcast listeners are fans of The Moth’s “true stories told live.”  Unlike tabloid readers, listeners to The Moth are drawn to stories that we believe are fundamentally true.  Better yet, stories on The Moth are narrated by the participants themselves.  Whose ears don’t prick up when a story begins, “You won’t believe what happened to me…”?

Personal stories are also, of course, of deep interest to many people in the humanities.  While they may still be enormously entertaining, in the hands of humanities scholars, individuals’ life stories can help us to see historical and cultural patterns, and can reveal unexpected meaning in the rich variety of human experience.  If, in the broadest sense, the humanities ask what it means to be human, then personal stories can be seen as offering a trove of individual answers that can change how we think and feel about other human beings.

The power of a single story was brought home to me recently, when I was interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio about our new Working Lives Project.  To explain what the project hopes to do, I told a story from my childhood in Europe, about an elderly woman who I saw every night as she lit the streets’ gas lamps. Gas lamps were replaced by electric lights by the 1980s, and the job of lamplighter disappeared.  Today, gas lamps are being reinstalled in Prague and the job of lamplighter exists again, although now it is performed by young men clad in period costume.

I told this story to illustrate the idea that every job is part of a web of connections – to the past, to changing cultural values, changing technology, economics and public policy.  The story of the lamplighters also highlights the fact that a lot of what we depend upon in our lives is the product of unseen labor by people we probably will never meet.  Once the woman with her pole is gone, it’s easier to forget about the people who keep the lights on, unless you develop that awareness of others’ work as part of your worldview.

Right after the interview, a woman who gave her name as Sue from Menomonee Falls emailed our office.  She spoke of her experience of change in a job she held for decades.  I urge you to go to the WHC blog, Humanities Booyah, and read her story in full, told in her own words.  Sue’s story is of her work as a medical transcriptionist, and how changes in economics and technology caused her work to be moved from an office to home.  Here is a little of what Sue said:

No longer did I drive, nor dress for work.  We were no longer visible to doctors and they assumed we no longer existed.  They thought the computer was recognizing speech, and in fact, some programs were doing that.  No longer were we asked to office parties, dinners, meetings.  We were silent, invisible, forgotten.  Soon I realized how much I needed that drive to work in the morning, or the unwinding offered by the drive back home.  I felt ugly because I worked in pajamas. There was no need for makeup.  My work buddies were my pet birds.  The only time anyone knew we existed was if a mistake was made.

Not long after we published this, we heard from Sue that she lost her job.  As she predicted, she was replaced by a computer with voice recognition.

Sue contacted us because, during the interview, I mentioned that we wanted to share peoples’ work stories.  She wanted hers to be heard.   When Sue got in touch with us, we still hadn’t figured out the best ways to share personal stories like hers.  What we did know is that we launched The Working Lives Project because we felt that the public conversation about work was too narrowly focused, and that the partisan nature of so much of it was obscuring the truly diverse meanings and experience of work in peoples’ lives.  We believed that personal stories about what work is, and what it means to us, can take the public conversation beyond numbers and behind the rhetoric.

We’ve done a lot of work of our own since meeting Sue.  We now have two ways to use storytelling to build a rich conversation about work in our lives.  The programs described below aim to build empathy, inspire, and inform.  Historians, folklorists, and other humanities scholars will help us work in communities to elicit stories and construct a complex picture of the working lives of the people of Wisconsin. 

In every individual story there is a kind of truth.  When scholars and members of the public collaborate to share stories, an even richer story and perhaps even a larger truth can emerge.  Taking our stories beyond the confines of our homes gives them a new kind of power.  If we take the time to listen, stories can change us.

Dena Wortzel’s day job is as executive director of the WHC. The rest of the time she can be found wrestling hay bales, messing with animals, and watching the grass grow on her farm in Hollandale.


Recently Funded Projects

For each dot on the map, imagine people coming together for a great humanities conversation, sharing their ideas and learning from scholars and neighbors. Every dot represents a project made possible by a WHC grant. Descriptions of these projects can be read on our website here.


In the Spotlight

Gerald Viste: A life of many works  

In 1973, when the Wisconsin Humanities Council was in its second full year of operation, Gerald (Jerry) Viste joined the group of founders eagerly working to carry forward the mission that was suggested to them by Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  That mission was to create a new non-profit organization whose programs would help people statewide use the humanities to deepen understanding of public policy issues facing Wisconsin and the nation. 

Jerry brought to the WHC his concerns for education, history, and culture, his love of his adopted state of Wisconsin, and his experience as an executive with Wausau Insurance and in leadership positions on boards of local and state organizations.  People who know Jerry, know that he brings to his service work more than intelligence and expertise; he brings a deeply felt commitment to service as a way of life.  This commitment is something he shared with his late wife, Marion, who friends knew as Barney. 

Jerry’s work with the WHC occurred many years before he retired, and thankfully was encouraged by an employer that believed in community service.  When Jerry retired in 1985, he says that Barney quipped that the two of them were not retiring, but “just changing workplaces.”  Jerry said of his plans for retirement, “We believed that exhilaration and satisfaction would flow from activities that related to our deepest concerns about the community.  Being engaged with persons of all ages who share these concerns is certainly life-affirming, life-enhancing.  We believed that the involvement could not be casual or sporadic; it must be intense and continuous.”  And so, indeed, it has been.

Jerry Viste’s personal story of service is one we are especially honored to share.  His contributions continue to make a difference. Thank you, Jerry, for all your generosity and passion for the humanities.


Mark Livengood: Work and life as the WHC Grant Program Director

MarkLivengoodHow’s the job?

Since I began working for the WHC in June 2013, I’ve driven about 4200 miles across the state doing outreach, from Ashland to Kenosha, Dodgeville to Sturgeon Bay.  Hearing about what people are working on, learning about their communities, working with them to shape their ideas into grant proposals, watching their projects come together: these are great aspects of my job. 

What prepared you for this work?

I’m a folklorist by training and I’ve worked in many different capacities in the public humanities: as the director of a community-based museum, as a researcher at an academic center, as a college instructor, as a contract cartographer. 

What do you do when you’re not at the office?

It really depends on the month, but every morning I read and write. 



Bad River Water and Culture Maps Project: Jessie Conaway of the UW – Madison Nelson Institute worked with Bad River Ojibwe community members to create maps in multiple media, the Bad River BadRiverMap1Water & Culture Maps Project. These include a wall map, cultural atlas, and webmap that share stories about Lake Superior Ojibwe identity, traditions, and values regarding the waters of their homeland.  The project also includes a 20-30 foot interactive floor map.  At public events throughout Wisconsin in summer 2014, local citizens and visitors added their stories to the floor map. These Storymaps of the Bad River watershed and Lake Superior Basin portray the immense value of Wisconsin’s freshwater resources, a deep sense of place of Wisconsin’s Native Nations, and keen watershed literacy of Wisconsin citizenry.  

Oneida Nation Oral History Project: Teens at Oneida Nation High School conducted oral history interviews ONEIDA-ELDERSwith tribal elders.  They elicited stories about the elders’ lives to build cultural continuity and understanding of what Oneida life was like in past decades, and to strengthen personal relationships between youth and elders.  DakotaAdams

Veterans Digital Storytelling Project: Last spring, Dakota Adams attended a digital storytelling workshop created by faculty at UW-Parkside, where he is a student.  The workshop helped veterans and their families document their life stories and experiences in the military.  The project was supported by a WHC grant. Dakota Adams is pictured here in 2011, aboard the USS Ponce holding the US Marine Corps flag for a burial at sea ceremony for a fellow service member.  



Be part of the story



Two new WHC programs, launching this summer, will use storytelling to build our statewide conversation about the experience and meaning of work.

Shop Talk: community talks on work brings people face-to-face, so that different voices and stories can foster empathy and respect, and generate thoughtful discussion among people from diverse walks of life.  Shop Talk will offer libraries, schools, historical societies, community groups, and businesses around Wisconsin the chance to host presenters whose stories illuminate their work and what it means in their lives.  Facilitated conversation will encourage audiences to share their own stories.  To provide more food for thought, humanities scholars will offer talks on everything from the history of agricultural work in Wisconsin to analyses of hotly debated public policies.  Scholarship and teaching are work, so we’re asking our Shop Talk scholars to share something of their life story with you as well as their knowledge.

To reach even more people, we plan to take advantage of the media and digital technology.  Our partnership with Wisconsin Public Radio for the Wisconsin Life series brought the voices of a modern day trapper, a building manager, an emergency room nurse, and tree surgeon to thousands of listeners in September and October.  You can hear all ten and see photos on The Working Lives Project website

Now we want to facilitate storytelling by people of all ages, all around the state.  A Working Lives Project digital storytelling initiative will feature workshops at which participants get help crafting the digital presentation of a work story of their own.  Stories are in participants’ words, using their own images and simple digital technology.  We plan to offer workshops in collaboration with local organizations that represent the diversity of Wisconsin people and communities.

Here’s what you can do: 

  1. Contact us to suggest someone who would do a great job as a Shop Talk presenter, talking about his or her work and life.
  2. Sign up to receive information about hosting a Shop Talk program when we launch.
  3. Contact us to suggest a school or organization in your community that might host a one-day digital storytelling workshop.
  4. Stay in touch with The Working Lives Project by subscribing to our blog, becoming a friend of the WHC on Facebook, or following us on Twitter @wihumanities.  
  5. Make a contribution to the WHC. Your support gives everyone a chance to be part of the story.


About the Images

Cover: L.A. (Initialed) Hard Construction Work-Mining Clay; Oil on panel; 35 1/2 x 35 1/2 inches; Grohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Bad River Mapping Project: Photo by Tanya Buckingham, UW Cartography Lab

Oneida Nation High School Oral History Project: Photo courtesy of Oneida Nation High School

Veteran Digital Storytelling Project: Photo courtesy of Walter Jacobs